The Bitch and Sing Dept: Amelie Amelie Amelie!

Over the weekend we were treated to a great women’s final in Dubai between Justine Henin and Amelie Mauresmo. This has emerged as one of the best rivalries in tennis, men’s or women’s. The match certainly did not disappoint: both players showed a wide array of touch and power and while both of them brought their “A” games, when push came to shove it was Amelie who folded up her tent and went off into the desert, so to speak. What could have happened to make the outcome different next time?

We’ve yelled before about certain aspects in the Frenchwoman’s game that could be tightened up, or changed. Like her inability to really hit a flat forehand shot, and her lackluster serve, particular the second serve. It comes floating over the net almost like a balloon sometimes, sitting up begging to be smacked. And Justine was just the woman to treat it with the impunity it deserved.

Women’s tennis has so few really good servers that you wonder why more of the players don’t show more aggression in returning the second serves of players. Dementieva has been the principal culprit, although lately she has gotten a little more pop on her first serve, and can protect the second better, at least a little. After Sunday I think Mauresmo could fit into that category. She needs to put more pace on the first serve and on the second. She needs to take it as seriously as the Williams sisters do. Not some casual thing we’re doing just to get the ball in play.

As far as her forehand goes, it is too loopy with too much topspin. Not that a shot like that cannot do some damage, but you face occasions when the ball needs to be hit flatter, more directly and with more pace. A lot of it may just be mental mistakes. During the match Amelie came to net behind a forehand approach to Justine’s backhand, but she hit the wrong forehand approach. It sat up and Justine whacked a rather easy backhand up the line for a winner. If Amelie had flattened it out and given it a more inside-out look, she probably would have won the point.

Part of her loopiness is due to that somewhat extreme western grip she uses, wherein your hand is almost under the racquet rather than behind it or on top of it. You can’t help but hit topspin with a grip like that. I wouldn’t know, though, so maybe I’m just jealous. I am probably the last person on the planet who uses the old eastern grip, the “shake hands” goody they used to teach. I could not hit topspin if my life depended on it. I can flatten the ball in a way Connors would approve, and put pace on it, but timing is really key here, and if your timing is off the shots can spray every which way.

Can we expect Amelie to change her grip after all this time? Probably not. Mardy Fish has been tinkering of late with the grip on his forehand; reports are it looks kind of weird but it seems to be more effective. But this is a risky undertaking and not many players would go down this road. Someone should have nipped her tendencies in the bud long before she got to this point. But you need several kinds of forehands, one for pace and flatness when you’re going for a shot before the player gets to the spot, topspin for when you need extra time to get in position and to give yourself a little extra margin. Amelie’s got plenty of the latter and not enough of the former.

Surely her coach has tried to address these problems. Surely she is aware of what she needs to do. I am somewhat astonished that she doesn’t show more progress in these areas. Is it laziness, or fear? Or is she simply unable to? I always assume that even if you reach the top of the rankings you still want to improve your game; you are still eager for the challenge of new things.

During the match one of the commentators chastised Mauresmo for hitting her forehand very late, like off her back foot. This may contribute to her forehand errors, but it is not the root of her problem. Steffi Graf got away with hitting lots of forehands off her back foot too, in fact Steffi looked at times like she was pulling balls out of her pocket. But don’t tell me Steffi did not know how to flatten out a forehand, she did, and it was her most devastating shot. I don’t think we will say that of Mauresmo, because her grip works against her. And maybe her mentality too. Mauresmo really doesn’t have the killer instinct Steffi did. She can still win matches, but whether she will continue to win the big matches consistently is doubtful until she makes these adjustments in her game. Look at what Henin has done: she’s upped her backhand a ton and she’s made changes in her serve. She ventures forth into the territory she needs to get to to improve her game. Mauresmo, it seems, has to be dragged kicking and screaming.

But it’s such a beautiful game already, fans of Mauresmo may be moaning, she can still win lots of points in beautiful rallies without turning into a female version of Jimmy Connors. Beauty is beautiful and I love to see it too, but is that going to put points on the board, or win you matches? Mauresmo’s beautiful backhand, her stellar shot by far, won’t ever see the light of day in a match if she can’t get that first serve in more convincingly and improve the quality of her second serve. And that backhand kill shot won’t kill unless maybe you set it up first with a decent forehand drive.

Come on, Amelie, you know we love you and your game, that’s why we want to see these adjustments made. You could have won that match in Dubai. Next time we hope you will.